Israel delays Rafah offensive plans amid heated debate over response to Iranian attack, sources say


Tel Aviv, Israel
CNN
 — 

Israel was set to take its first steps towards a ground offensive on the Gaza city of Rafah but delayed that campaign after Iran’s weekend attack on their country, which has sparked a heated debate in the war cabinet over how to respond, Israeli sources have told CNN.

The Israeli Air Force was set to begin dropping leaflets on parts of Rafah on Monday, two Israeli sources said, amid preparations for a ground offensive into Gaza’s southernmost city where more than 1 million people are sheltering.

Those plans were paused after a retaliatory weekend attack from Iran, which saw more than 300 projectiles fired towards Israel, the vast majority of which were intercepted by Israel and its partners.

One Israeli official said Israel remains determined to carry out a ground offensive in Rafah, although the timing of civilian evacuations and the coming ground offensive remains unclear at the moment.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

The war cabinet meanwhile remains determined to respond to Iran’s attack, but as it convened Monday afternoon, its members continue to debate the timing and scope of such a response, the officials said. In addition to a potential military response, the war cabinet is also mulling diplomatic options to further isolate Iran on the world stage.

Monday’s meeting ended late afternoon local time, an Israeli official confirmed to CNN, adding they had no initial details on what was discussed or decided.

Benny Gantz, a key member of the war cabinet, has pushed for a swifter response to Iran’s attack, two Israeli officials said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far pumped the brakes on making a decision.

Gantz believes that the longer Israel delays its response to Iran’s attack, the harder it will be to garner international support for such an attack, the sources said. Multiple countries are already cautioning Israel against escalating the situation further with a military response.

Israel’s government is aware that the country is currently enjoying international support and good will from its allies and does not want to squander that. At the same time, the government recognizes that it cannot allow Iran’s first attack on Israeli soil to go unanswered.

Among the military options that are being considered, the war cabinet is consider an attack on an Iranian facility that would send a message, but would avoid causing casualties, one Israeli official said.

But Israeli officials recognize that will be a difficult needle to thread, hence the ongoing debate. The timing of a decision remains unclear.

Netanyahu has been facing international pressure to de-escalate a fraught situation after Iran’s weekend attack.

The attack came in response to a suspected Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic complex in Syria earlier this month, which killed at least seven officials including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and senior commander Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi.

An hours-long war cabinet meeting on Sunday ended without a decision on how Israel will respond to Iran’s attack, an Israeli official said.

US President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu after the weekend attack, and made clear that the US would not participate in any offensive operations against Iran, a senior White House administration official told CNN.

Biden told Netanyahu he should consider the events of Saturday night a “win” as Iran’s attacks had been largely unsuccessful, and instead demonstrated Israel’s “remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks.”

But Gantz urged on Sunday the need to “build a regional coalition and exact a price from Iran, in a way and at a time that suits us.”

Israel and Iran have long been rivals, but tensions escalated in the wake of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, which left about 1,200 people dead. Iran backs a web of proxies across the Middle East that have frequently clashed with Israel since the attacks.

Netanyahu has stressed the importance of invading Rafah in order to dismantle Hamas’s remaining battalions, despite significant pressure from the United States to call off an all-out ground offensive.

The future of the war in Gaza and a coming ground offensive in Rafah are also factoring into the war cabinet’s debate about a potential response to Iran’s attack.

A military response that risks escalating the conflict with Iran further would pull the military’s attention and resources away from Gaza, where Israel’s government has vowed to hand Hamas a total defeat.

Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

A displaced man makes tea in Rafah last week.

American officials reiterated last week that the US has not seen anything resembling a comprehensive plan from the Israelis on how they would carry out such an operation, including first moving the majority of the estimated 1.4 million civilians out of Rafah.

Palestinians from across Gaza fled to the city, in the south of the enclave, in the early stages of the war to escape an advancing Israeli military.

But with the Egyptian border to the south closed, there is no clear escape route for those Palestinians, many of whom are living in tents surrounding the city.

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